Kathryn Lasky, author
Kathryn Lasky is the acclaimed author of dozens of books for young readers, including Tumble Bunnies, Hatchling, the bestselling Guardians of Ga'Hoole series, and Sugaring Time, a Newbery Honor book. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Read more about Kathryn.
Johnson Yazzie, illustrator
Born on the Navajo Nation in Pinon, Arizona, Johnson Yazzie's interest in creation began in childhood and led to a lifelong career in fine art as a painter, bronze sculptor, and illustrator. The Navajo word hózhó means balance, harmony, beauty. It is the word by which he lives.
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- Coming soon!
Jewish Book Council
Jewish-American author Kathryn Lasky pairs with the Navajo artist Johnson Yazzie to tell a lesser-known story of Jewish immigrants in the American Southwest and the Native American communities that became their neighbors. Lasky narrates the story of Yossel, a Jewish boy escaping Tsarist Russia with his family and finding a haven in New Mexico, where they have inherited a trading post. While trying to acclimate himself there and still holding on to memories of the past, Yossel meets Thomas, a Navajo boy whose family has called the region their home for generations. Through poetic text and colorful portraits of late nineteenth-century life among intersecting cultures, Lasky and Yazzie create a believable story of boyhood friendship and deeply rooted traditions.
The Jews in this story are not city dwellers. Forced to abandon their Russian shtetl, Yossel and his parents bypass the urban areas where most Jewish immigrants settled, instead establishing themselves in the desert, close to a Navajo Reservation. As a child, Yossel is unaware of all the political and historical implications of his new neighbors’ past, but he knows that he feels unsettled and lonely. The paradox of many immigrants’ lives is that, even when their old home was fraught with danger, their new one is detached from everything familiar. Yossel lists the humble items they take with them: pots and pans, dried fruit, colored pencils, and a samovar, but the intangible sounds and smells of their old home have vanished. Instead, they will need to put down new roots in a huge expanse of land, where Yossel observes that the mesas “remind me of stone hats.” Setting visual impressions and delicate metaphors within Yossel’s speech, Lasky paints a vivid picture for young readers.
There are no heavy-handed statements about brotherhood in the book, but there is a chicken joke. It had entertained Yossel’s friend back in Russia, but will Thomas and his family relate to it also? When a sheep eats a hole in the family’s laundry, will Yossel lose the opportunity to build a new friendship? Yossel vacillates between an optimistic faith in the ability to bridge differences and valid concerns that reaching out towards others may not always succeed. His mother may have “good, long talking fingers” when she communicates without words in their store, but Yossel knows that non-verbal language is not always enough.
Yazzie’s pictures stand out from the page-like cutouts in a collage. Some are static portraits, while others place figures in dynamic scenes of action together. Yossel’s mother, robed in blue and violet, blesses her Sabbath candles against a green background. The picture of the two boys eating blintzes together shows each of them smiling, Thomas with surprise and Yossel with relief that his mother’s cooking has met with his friend’s approval. Throughout the book, earth colors associated with the Southwest are the natural setting for a fruitful exchange of cultures. Some experiences are simply universal, as when an anxious Yossel lies in bed, worried that the fragile pieces of his new relationship may shatter. Yazzie speaks clearly to children through his effective choices of composition and color.
When Lasky writes how the “smell of sagebrush meets the cinnamon of Mama’s honey cake. I breathe it all in,” she defines the scope of her book, both large and small. Cultural syncretism, people learning from one another and adapting to change, are big themes. But equally central is the friendship between two boys, each facing unfamiliar customs but willing to accept their value. The partnership between Kathryn Lasky and Johnson Yazzie highlights the meaning of this process with literary and visual beauty.
This highly recommended story includes an author’s note with historical background and a list of recommended further reading.
Because the tsar is “sending his soldiers to hurt Jewish people,” eight-year-old Yossel’s family emigrates from Russia to America, traveling by train, boat, and covered wagon to New York City, then past Santa Fe to a town that borders a Navajo reservation. There, they run a trading post left to them by family, which is filled with “barrels of coffee and beans and seed.” Yossel learns “English and Navajo words for things like coffee and nails.... But I am afraid to speak.” When he meets an Indigenous boy his age, Thomas, they find ways to communicate and share—Yossel’s mother offers blintzes, and Thomas “shows me where the ghosts of Navajos live and where rattlesnakes sleep”—and then build a friendship that grows even closer when Yossel makes Thomas’s infant sibling laugh for the first time. Lines by Lasky (the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series) balance the feel of wide-open spaces and family comforts (“The smell of sagebrush meets the cinnamon of Mama’s honey cake”), while Navajo artist Yazzie’s acrylic paintings portray white-outlined characters and saturated landscapes that draw similarities between Russia and the American Southwest. An author’s note and further reading conclude but elide discussion of the U.S. government’s displacement of Navajo people. Ages 5–9.
This new fictional, but realistic story about Yossel, a Jewish boy, who travels to America to escape religious persecution in Russia is excellent. Yossel is used to the smell of cinnamon in his cozy home, being near neighbors, and the people in his small community-especially his best friend Moishe. Immigrating to America with his parents is a new and daunting experience. His family arrives in New York, but doesn’t settle there, as many immigrants did. Instead, they take trains to the southwest and settle in New Mexico, near the Navajo nation. Yossel must get used to so many new things. He is learning English and Navajo. The mesas are tall and beautiful, but different. The wide-open spaces make him feel tiny and empty. Then, one day, a young Navajo boy comes with his family to Yossel’s family’s trading post. Yossel comes out of hiding, and the two strike up a friendship. Yossel begins to heal and become more at peace with his new home. The originality of the story, a Jewish immigrant family, settling in the Southwest, is interesting and engaging for the reader. This book is beautifully written and illustrated. The artwork is stunning, done in acrylic paints that look more like blended oil pastels. The Navajo artwork with the well-written narrative intertwine the two cultural traditions perfectly. The author includes a helpful historical note about other Jewish groups who fled to this area, as well as continued reading sources. This book is a fantastic read aloud, enabling interesting discussion for students. Pairing this book with similarly themed upper grade novels, such as Blood Secret or The Length of a String, would be an excellent literature study for intermediate students. This book is highly recommended.
Page count: 48
11 x 8 1/2